Starting off the chilly season with a bang, Newark’s Resident Ensemble Players has mounted Starter Pistol by company member Michael Gotch (author of last season’s Minor Fantastical Kingdoms). Helmed by acclaimed stage director Mark Lamos, the work pulls apart a midwestern family’s secrets as they attempt to survive in an increasingly hard, increasingly cold world.
At home with the James family
In a dying midwestern factory town, Karen James (Kathleen Pirkl Tague) works 12-hour nursing shifts to support her injured, angry, pill-popping, out-of-work husband Griff (Stephen Pelinski) and her reclusive teenage son Matthew (Peter Fein). She frequently confides in a magnificent deer trophy—the head of a buck christened Walter with a backstory of his own—that holds pride of place in the living room. “You be nice to Walter,” she says. “He’s the only one that listens to me.”
Two years ago, Karen’s sister Cheryl (Elizabeth Heflin) divorced Griff’s brother Curtis (Lee E. Ernst), a police officer unable to come to terms with their split. When Cheryl brings a guest to supper—Darryl (René Thornton Jr.), a polished African American lawyer from Chicago who is the apparent antithesis of the James family—unexpected common ground is gained and then lost.
Living room triage
Starter Pistol explores the grab-bag of issues, including gun violence, industrial change, poverty, marital shifts, classism and racism, sibling rivalry, and toxic masculinity, now plaguing American communities. Gotch is not interested in presenting solutions to the many threads he unravels alongside his plot twists. Instead, he raises questions and leaves them unsolved, perhaps insoluble.
Lamos cannily guides this fine cast (and the work itself) to create a cogent production of a fine piece of writing that could benefit from refinement and a clearer focus. He steers the actors cleanly away from situations that could be histrionic in less careful hands. Gotch’s characters are not stereotypes or parodies, and the actors are careful to portray them with sensitivity, perhaps aided by the fact that four of the six REP cast members hail from the Midwest. (Lamos himself was born in Chicago and had a long relationship with the award-winning Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, where he began his acting career.)
Each character except for Matthew has a well-honed, revealing monologue, though those for Griff and Darryl, while beautifully crafted. venture without warning into poetic territory that isn’t character-specific. Like all new plays, the work will undoubtedly undergo further polishing. But there are also intriguing and telling moments—how shop talk substitutes for true connection among men; how guns are both menace and unifier; and how (as nurse Karen observes), like all of us, these characters “are constantly trying to triage multiple issues.”
Perfectly faded domicile
Redoubtable scenic designer Hugh Landwehr has created a faultless domestic setting descriptive of both the fading industrial town’s struggle and its residents’ inability to move ahead. He provides scores of visual clues that (almost unconsciously) can advance narrative and character—an out-of-date kitchen, late 20th-century kitsch décor, furniture that’s clearly seen better days, and of course that magnificent mounted buck.
Seen through just-grimy-enough windows and a stained screen door are the luminous red maples that signal deer-hunting season, and Matthew Richards’s lighting evokes both the glories of nature outside and the yellow glare of cheap incandescent bulbs in the house. Cars come and go in the driveway propelled by the sound design of Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen, and Tricia Barsamian hits just the right tone with her everyday, down-at-the-heels costumes.
Watch out for Gotch
Starter Pistol deals with 21st-century dilemmas in the style of classic mid-20th-century domestic works coupled with Greek tragedy. Gotch is fascinated by Greek theater, especially the work of Euripides, and he sees his characters as heroic. By fashioning this contemporary work in reference to both ancient and recent dramatic constructs, the playwright taps into universal references that lead down well-trodden paths: though not necessarily predictable, the plot is not entirely unexpected.
Like the country it portrays, this play divided the audience. Some thought it a brilliant look at America; others were not at all convinced. Starter Pistol garnered Michael Gotch a winning slot in the 2019 Ashland New Play Festival, and last year’s REP production of Minor Fantastical Kingdoms (now called Tiny House) will be seen this summer at the renowned Westport Country Playhouse. Gotch has always been a riveting actor; now he’s also a playwright to watch.
What, When, Where
Starter Pistol. By Michael Gotch, directed by Mark Lamos. Through February 2, 2020, at the Thompson Theatre of the University of Delaware’s Roselle Center for the Arts, 110 Orchard Rd., Newark, DE. (302) 831-2204 or rep.udel.edu.
The Thompson Theatre in the Roselle Center is a wheelchair-accessible venue. To learn more or request accommodations, call the box office or email [email protected] at least five days in advance of the performances.